Living with Tornadoes
Muscatine County folks who would sit on a roof to watch a tornado and send a postcard image of the storm to loved ones are a little too comfortable with their lives on the edge of “tornado alley” in the Midwest. But then the postcard is maybe not so different from the present-day Facebook post of the tornado seen across the field or on the drive home.
In 1804, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, first wrote of seeing a tornado in what would become southwestern Iowa. As the Lewis and Clark party passed up the Missouri River, they observed “much fallen timber apparearantly the ravages of a Dreddful horican, which had passed obliquely across from N.W. to S.E. about twelve months Sinc, many trees were broken off near the ground, the trunks of which were sound and four feet in diameter.”
Before the Muscatine County folks sent their tornado image to loved ones—probably about 1890–, the national press had already picked up reports of major tornadoes in Iowa. J.A. Wetherby of Iowa City was quoted in the national press when he described a May 24, 1859 tornado that passed just south of Iowa City, killing five in the city, seriously injuring six, and less seriously hurting another dozen. Wetherby wrote, “During the progress of the tornado, two giant oaks, one measuring at least three feet in diameter, standing near together were uprooted, one thrown to the westward, the other east….Wherever the tornado passed, the houses are leveled with the ground, fences are stripped of their boards, posts taken bodily out of the ground.”
Other major tornadoes followed: the Comanche tornado (or tornadoes) of June 3, 1860 that formed west of Cedar Rapids and proceeded into Michigan killing 134 persons or the May 22, 1873 tornado that took eight lives in Keokuk and Washington counties or the 1882 tornado that devasted Grinnell to name just a few.
Before 1970 when state climatologist Paul Waite wrote about the worst Iowa storms, none of the 25 most severe tornadoes had occurred in Muscatine County. But the number of tornadoes by decade across Iowa and the number killed by those storms is noteworthy and may bring us back to the tornado postcard from Muscatine County. Although the highest recorded number of tornadoes (up to 1970) was in the decade of the 1960s—312—the highest number of deaths was in the 1890s—221—when only 40 tornadoes were recorded in the state. The decade with the second highest number of fatalities, according to Waite’s records, was the 1880s. 167 lost their lives to tornadoes in that decade. Without sufficient warning or caution, tornadoes are dangerous for sure!
Sources: SHSI: Disasters-Natural-Tornado-photo file; Paul J. Waite, “Outstanding Iowa Storms,” The Annals of Iowa, 1970.